On Sunday morning I met up with my friend John at 6:30am and we drove west to Cumberland County to fish the limestone spring fed waters of Big Spring Creek. John is relatively new to the sport of fly fishing and this was his first time fishing Big Spring. I figured I’d introduce him to the good stuff! We arrived at “The Ditch” parking lot a little before 8:00am. The sun was still low and rising on the horizon and there was a slight fog hanging over the creek. I tied on a new 9-foot leader and 6X tippet. I stood and watched the creek for a bit and didn’t see any bug activity on the surface. I decided to tie on my Big Spring standby, the #16 Hunchback Scud, which imitates the freshwater crustacean known as the scud, common in the Big Spring Creek. John headed upstream and I stayed on the lower portion of “The Ditch” closer to the parking lot. There is a concrete wall there that you can sneak up on and observe trout that are cruising on the bottom. I saw maybe a half-dozen wild brook trout moving about in the gin clear water and there were a few wild rainbows mixed in as well. Rather than walk down to the swampy bank, I decided to try and dead drift the scud from the top of the concrete wall. I dropped the scud off of the back of a #12 cress bug. Drifting nymphs on Big Spring is a challenge. You are dealing with a stream that is not very wide at points, has foliage on the banks, and a large amount of aquatic vegetation. All that while attempting to dead drift your rig to a wild fish in crystal clear water across a bottom that often times leaves your fly covered in green slime. And note, this fish may have seen 100 flies in the past week.
On my first couple of drifts I watched a small brook trout aggressively chase my scud but not take. Other larger brook and rainbow trout watched the scud drift by without flinching. On my fourth or fifth drift, I watched a colorful brook trout suddenly turn and strike at my scud and I was hooked up. I jumped down to the side of the stream and brought this beautiful wild fish to my net. I don’t think there is any better example of wild Pennsylvania brook trout than those in the Big Spring Creek. Their colors are amazing.
After releasing my first fish of the day, I briefly watched John getting his first taste of the challenges of Big Spring. I decided to walk around John and head upstream to try and find the spring itself. Along my walk, I cast to many wild brook and rainbow trout with no success. Stealth is an absolute priority when fishing Big Spring Creek. Often times it is as if the trout can sense the vibration of your footsteps on the ground, even when you are ten feet off the bank and walking as quietly as one can in wading boots.
After taking a look at the spring and not catching any fish, John and I decided to drive down to the next parking lot. We both walked downstream, fishing each small riffle and pool we came across. Neither of us was able to bring any fish to hand on our walk, although we saw several move from their lies. Eventually we arrived at a bridge I call the “Hourglass Bridge,” due to the hourglass likeness formed where it merges with two farm lanes when viewed on Google Earth. I typically find that the water just below this bridge typically holds large rainbows. However, this wasn’t a good day to locate them. The aquatic vegetation was in full swing and it was virtually impossible to make a stealthy approach. In my attempt, I spooked two rainbows that were easily in the 20”+ size range. After moving through this section I was able to hook up with a small wild rainbow.
The further John and I moved downstream, the warmer the air temperature got and the more uncomfortable we were in our chest waders. The water temperatures were hovering about 54 degrees for most of the day. Once the sun sat high in the sky, the fish were harder to come by and we decided to wrap up our fishing just before lunch time.
As much as Big Spring Creek can be very technical and frustrating, it is also very rewarding to catch a wild trout on this stream. There have been times I’ve driven away thinking that I never want to come back and yet something about the challenge of the water makes me want to come back and learn more. The water is pristine and as a fly fisherman, I am lucky to have a naturally reproducing wild trout stream like Big Spring here in eastern Pennsylvania. One day I hope to experience double digits on Big Spring. John is still learning the nuances of the sport of fly fishing and fishing Big Spring was just another step in learning about trout. Where they live, what they eat, and they’re behavior. And so in a lot of ways, I’m still learning too.